Imagine a lush tropical rainforest, rich with the sounds of wildlife. In the distance, howler monkeys can be heard chattering back and forth, and of course, there is the all encompassing cacophony of myriad birds singing a song that can be heard nowhere else in the world.
Walking further into the wild, the song continues but there is an accompaniment somewhere in the background that sounds a bit off. It's a grating, almost enraged sound that one would have to assume no animal could possibly make. Walking toward the noise, it becomes louder and angrier. If it were an animal, it would be a behemoth of a beast because one can now hear, quite clearly, the sound of timber breaking and trees falling to the forest floor. The song of the forest has quieted now, and all that is left is the deafening roar of the beast.
Only, upon reaching a clearing and viewing the source of the noise directly, a person might be shocked to see that the beast is, in actuality, a bulldozer. Beyond the bulldozer, trees are being lifted in bunches by enormous cranes, and dropped onto flatbed trucks to be hauled away. A person might throw a quick glance back to the forest to reassure oneself that it is still there. It isfor now. But the clearing is growing, and the bulldozer shows no intentions of stopping. How could a person feel, when confronted with a situation such as this?
Deforestation in the Tropical Andes
Sadly, the type of scenario described in the preceding paragraphs is not uncommon. The Tropical Andes, one of the world's biodiversity epicenters, is experiencing just this type of deforestation everyday. Much of the deforestation is result of growing human populations and burgeoning cities. Conservation International (n.d.) makes the sad declaration that less than 25 percent of the original vegetation in this area is intact today.
There is no singular cause for deforestation in the Tropical Andes, an area that spans an area of 1,542,644 km2 from Panama and Venezuela to Argentina (Conservation International, n.d.). According to Conservation International (n.d), the biggest causes of deforestation in the cloud forests are road building and agriculture. In the higher lands, the causes are agriculture, mining, grazing, seasonal burning, and fuel wood extraction (Conservation International, n.d.). In lower altitudes, a relatively new cause of deforestation has arisen: oil exploration. Conservation International (n.d.) says that, "In recent decades, large oil and gas discoveries have been made in these areas, making the region a hydrocarbon hotspot as well as a biodiversity hotspot" (Human impact, 3).
The problems created by deforestation of the Andes and other tropical rainforest areas are not just limited to these zones. Instead, the problems affect the entire planet. For instance, Raintree.com describes tropical rainforests as "the lungs of our planet," because it is estimated that the Amazon rainforest creates more than 20 percent of the world's oxygen, alone (Rainforest facts, n.d.). In addition, Miller (2005) states that the trees in tropical rainforests act as enormous carbon storehouses that absorb the carbon dioxide that humans are pumping into the air in copious amounts, thereby reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the air and counteracting global warming.
In spite of these facts, rainforests are disappearing at alarming rates. It is estimated that one and a half acres of rainforest are lost every second and if this trend continues, all of the world's rainforests will be gone within 40 years (Rainforest facts, n.d.). This would be a disastrous event, particularly as relates to the loss of biodiversity.
The Tropical Andes region has been described as the richest and most diverse area on Earth, in terms of biodiversity (Conservation International, n.d.). It comprises less than one percent of the planet's land area, yet it contains more than a sixth of the world's plant life and more species of amphibians than anywhere else on Earth (Conservation International, n.d.). In fact, there are 664 species of amphibians in this area; sadly, though, 450 of those species are endangered of becoming extinct, and 363 are endemic (Conservation International, n.d.).
Disturbingly, this is not limited to the Tropical Andes. Rather, it is a problem that affects all rainforests, and is quite preventable. Miller (2005) indicates that loss of habitat is the largest cause of extinction, and in the rainforest, that means one thing: deforestation. Some estimates put the number of species going extinct due to deforestation of rainforests at 137 per day (Rainforest facts, n.d.). In fact, extinction caused by human activities is a global problem, one that affects all life zones. Scientists estimate that it will take speciation at least 5 million years to rebuild the biodiversity we are likely to destroy in this century (Miller, 2005). While extinction certainly does happen naturally, human activity is responsible for much of the extinction that occurs today. A conservative estimate states that extinction rates are now 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than they were before humans emerged on the planet (Miller, 2005).
There are many methods that could be used to counteract deforestation. Miller (2005), advocates the use of sustainable agriculture and forestry. By using strip cutting and other sustainable methods of harvesting trees for lumber, fruits and other goods, the problems caused by deforestation would be scaled down considerably (Miller, 2005). Miller also advocates the restoration of previously destroyed rainforest areas. Restoration can include reforestation, rehabilitation of degraded areas, and keeping agriculture confined to already cleared areas. Farmers and settlers, according to Miller, should also be educated on sustainable agriculture and forestry practices (2005). Some countries participate in debt-for-nature swaps, where countries with endangered but important ecosystems are paid monetarily for protecting those environments (Miller, 2005). This gives local governments the incentive to protect endangered areas, through the financial support of other countries. Consumers can help to reduce deforestation by only purchasing products that are certified as having been produced in a sustainable manner (Lindsey, 2007).
When deforestation is radically reduced, there will be a subsequent drop in species extinction, as a result. This is due to the fact that, as Miller points out, deforestation is the largest contributor to species extinction in the rainforests (2005). So, obviously, decreasing the amount of deforestation will have a dramatic impact on the amount of species lost due to human activity.
Currently, some solutions are being used to help conserve Earth's remaining biodiversity. Conservation International, for example, is an advocate of using biodiversity hotspots as a means of highly focusing attention to areas that are particularly prone to species extinction (n.d.). The Tropical Andes area is on Conservation International's list of hotspots, due to its large number of species that are in critical danger of becoming extinct. Miller (2005) suggests that international treaties, such as CITES, be utilized to encourage governments to care for their endangered environments. There are problems with this approach, though, such as a lack of severe penalties and ratification by countries like the United States (Miller, 2005).
Miller states that national laws can also be an effective means of helping to revive species that are on the brink of extinction (2005). An example of this type of law's effectiveness is the United States' Endangered Species Act. This law has strict regulations prohibiting the purchase, hunting, killing, or even injuring protected species (Miller, 2005). The Act has had some successes in reinvigorating struggling species such as the "American alligator, the gray wolf, the bald eagle, and the peregrine falcon" (Miller, 2005, Sustaining biodiversity, 2). Recently, however, the Endangered Species Act has received political opposition from Conservatives in the Bush Administration (Miller, 2005).
Another solution that Miller suggests to species loss is the use of wildlife sanctuaries (2005). She points to the success of the United States' National Wildlife Refuge system as an example of how these sanctuaries can be effective in preserving endangered species. Miller states that nearly one fifth of the country's endangered or threatened species can be found in a Wildlife Refuge (2005). This system has saved species such as the key deer, the trumpeter swan, and the brown pelican from extinction (Miller, 2005).
For the everyday citizen, influencing such policies is not a viable option. There are things that ordinary people can do, however, to help protect species from extinction. Miller gives a short list of actions to follow:
1. Do not but furs, ivory products, and other materials made from endangered or threatened animal species.
2. Do not buy wood and paper products produced by cutting remaining old-growth forests in the tropics.
3. Do not buy birds, snakes, turtles, tropical fish, and other animals that are taken from the wild.
4. Do not buy orchids, cacti, and other plants that are taken from the wild.
(Miller, 2005, Sustaining biodiversity, figure 12-16)
It is important to note that none of these solutions will fix the problems of deforestation and extinction by themselves. A unified movement, consisting of various methods is needed in order to at least bring this crisis down to an acceptable level. By utilizing different methods for different situations, perhaps humans can undo some of the damage that has been done, and prevent more species from being eradicated from the face of the Earth.
The Tropical Andes are one of the most important ecosystems in the world. Much of the oxygen that humans breathe is created there, and much of the carbon dioxide that humans dump into the air is absorbed by the trees of the rainforest. Over half of the world's species live in rainforests, and 137 of those species are wiped out every day, due to deforestation and other human activities. If something is not done soon, humankind may find itself in dire straits, along with all of the animals that it has caused to become extinct. How can humanity ethically allow its actions to destroy such a wonderful ecosystem, full of life that is found no where else on Earth?
Conservation International. (n.d.). Human Impacts. Tropical Andes.
Conservation International. (n.d.). Tropical Andes. Biodiversity hotspots.
Lindsey, R. (2007). Tropical deforestation. Earth Observitory.
Miller, G.T. (2005). Sustaining biodiversity: the species approach. Living in the environment (14th ed.). Australia: Thomson Learning.
Miller, G.T. (2005). Sustaining terrestrial biodiversity: managing and protecting ecosystems. Living in the environment (14th ed.). Australia: Thomson Learning.
Raintree Nutrition (n.d.) Rainforest facts. http://www.rain-tree.com/facts.htm